The Grenfell Tower fire is thought to have been started by a fridge catching fire. You may well wonder how on earth that could happen.
Fridges are notoriously extremely flammable and give off toxic fumes when they burn. Many house fires start with appliance faults, especially fridge freezers. It’s possible the fridge was faulty, of course.
London Fire Service have highlighted the dangers of fridge freezers previously, and have called on manufacturers to make them safer. There is, on average, one fridge freezer fire a week in the capital and the service has been lobbying the industry to make their fridges and freezers more fire resistant for the some years.
However, there is a record of longstanding electrical faults which had resulted in surges to electrical appliances and light fittings in the Kensington Tower block, creating a huge fire risk, which had been repeatedly reported and repeatedly ignored by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation.
The fire service had reportedly been called out to the initial fridge fire that is thought to have started the inferno, and it was successfuly dealt with. However, fire service workers soon realised with horror that the outside of the building was on fire. Whether the fridge was faulty, or whether it exploded because of an electrical fault, it is in no way the fault of the resident that the fridge caused a fire, and that the outside of the building caught fire. He had also alerted his neighbours about the fire inside his flat after calling the fire brigade.
This account gives more credence to the theory that the flammable cladding, used to make the building look better, somehow was ignited by the fridge fire, which then caused the fire to rage with such ferocity throughout the entire tower block. This should not have happened, since each flat is a self-contained concete unit, designed to contain fire. But the fire raged inside of the tower as well as on the outside.
It is also thought that fitted sprinklers would have helped to contain the fire. None had been fitted when the refurbishment was completed. There was also only one escape route, down a single staircase.
Arnold Tarling, fire safety expert, told Panorama: “This building has been taken from a safe building where fire could not possibly spread across the surface of the building from flat to flat to one which was a death trap.”
He has previously said: “Had it been left alone it would never have burned like this.”
Philip Hammond has said the type of material used in the cladding is illegal in the UK.
Tarling, a surveyor and fire protection specialist, gave a TV interview in which he broke down as he spoke of warning three years ago of the threat posed by the type of cladding used on Grenfell Tower, after he had learned of the tragedy.
In a recent interview, Tarling said of Hammond’s comments:
“It’s b*llocks, frankly. I don’t blame him [Hammond] for being wrong as he’ll be going on information given to him by aides, but it’s simply not true.
The regulations are incredibly convoluted and unclear, but essentially the type of cladding used on Grenfell Tower was perfectly legal, under current legislation, because the exterior of the cladding panels was non-flammable. Under Appendix A of the Building Regulations 2010 fire safety document, only the outward-facing surface needs to be fire-resistant.
Those advising Hammond will be relying on calling the cladding panels ‘insulation’, which has different rules – but even in that section, it says ‘See Appendix A’ and takes you back to the same rule.
The law is complicated and badly constructed, but under it those panels were legal to use even though they’re known to be dangerous.
The material in those ‘sandwich’ panels was polyethylene, which is classified under the regulations as a ‘thermoplastic’, because it softens at below 200°C – in fact, it’s liquid at 120°C, barely above the temperature of boiling water. You couldn’t make a kettle out of it because it would collapse, but you can legally use it as a building material under current legislation.”
Tarling warned the government of the dangers posed in using the type of cladding that is likely to be responsible for the Grenfell conflagration. Tests are now to be carried out on around 600 high rises across England to see if cladding fitted to the outside is safe, the government said, following concerns raised about the safety of other buildings. So far, samples from three tower blocks – one in London and two thought to be elsewhere – were found to be combustible. More test results are expected to be made public within days.
Today, on the BBC’s Breakfast programme, Tarling spoke of a “firewall” between government and experts, who have raised concern about the discrepancy between fire safety regulation and building regulation for years. He mentioned that the polyurethane insulating material used both inside the cladding, and inside the wallspaces of some tower blocks releases highly toxic hydrogen cyanide gas when it burns. Some furnishings also release this gas when burned, too. It was confirmed by medical staff that survivors who were being treated for smoke inhalation also needed treatment for hydrogen cyanide poisioning. Carbon monoxide is often produced in quantity during residential fires, too, and both gases present a significant threat to life, in addition to the fire itself.
He also mentioned the exposed gas pipes, which had been relocated outside of the flats in the refurbishment, placed in the stairwell – the only escape route.
Like all high-rises, the Grenfell tower was originally designed to keep a fire contained in the flat where it started and keep the escape route – the stairway – protected.
Witnesses say that the corridors and staircases became smoke-logged. If there is a single fire in a single flat, if the building “works properly”, there should be virtually no smoke in the corridor and no smoke in the stairwell. If there is smoke, it suggests there is something wrong with the compartmentation of the building. It may be that the refurbishment changed the internal design of the tower, so that the fire wasn’t contained inside the building, which burned as ferociously as the outside.
The electical faults
So far, there has been no comment about the cause of the fridge explosion.
The residents’ organisation, Grenfell Action Group, has long criticised the fire safety standards of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation which manages around 9,400 properties.
This included the lack of notices to tenants about what to do in the event of a fire, piles of rubbish being dumped, and concerns over where boilers and gas pipes were placed. In its blog it warned that “catastrophe” was inevitable and “only a matter of time”. A local councillor, Judith Blakeman, who sits on the tenant management organisation, raised concerns in March about the National Grid installation of gas risers or pipes in the stairwell as part of the refurbishment. She was assured by the landlord that they would be boxed in with “fire-rated” protection, but this does not appear to have been done. It is known that work was still being done to box in the gas pipes running along floors. The London fire brigade said last Thursday morning they had not been able to put out the flames until they had isolated a ruptured gas main in the block. Residents also voiced fears about the relocating of boilers into hallways during the refurbishment.
KCTMO has two current enforcement notices from the London Fire Brigade, for Hazelwood Tower and for Adair Tower, where a fire required the evacuation of 50 residents. The notices highlight a string of safety failures by the company.
I found the following very troubling historical record of electrical faults, power surges and serious damage, as a result, to tenants’ electrical appliances and light fittings, on the Grenfell Action Group’s blog site:
“In May 2013 a serious electrical fault causing multiple power surges at Grenfell Tower posed a major fire risk to residents many of whom witnessed smoke coming from light fittings and other electrical appliances, some of which actually exploded. Despite the fact that these highly alarming incidents were reported to the TMO on 11th May no effective action was taken until the problems escalated out of control on 29th May 2013.
The power surges had been ongoing for 18 days with multiple reports by residents of electrical appliances catching fire and sometimes exploding, but multiple reports to the TMO by Grenfell Tower residents were treated with a dismissive and sceptical attitude. When electrical engineers were sent to investigate they insisted that the apparent smoking of electrical appliances was probably caused by steam from water dripping onto the appliances. Residents found these dismissive theories deeply insulting and we believe they demonstrated a shockingly blasé and complacent attitude by the TMO and its agents.
Consequently no effective action was taken until a near catastrophic incident occurred on the weekend of Sunday 29th May which affected multiple households and damaged many electrical appliances beyond repair. On that Sunday there were severe power surges throughout the night that continued through the following morning. A flood of calls from Grenfell Tower residents to the TMO out-of-hours emergency repairs service finally prompted the TMO to order a more thorough investigation of the power surge issue. They installed specialised metering equipment that soon revealed that there were indeed serious power surges which were subsequently traced to arcing in a damaged mains power cable supplying Grenfell Tower. The cause of the damage, they claimed, was unknown. The mains cable was subsequently repaired and surge protection was later added.
The resident groups, having been vindicated at last, were furious at the complacency and negligence of the TMO responses throughout the 18 days of the power surge ordeal. They appealed to the RBKC Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee and it was agreed that representatives from Grenfell Tower would attend the meeting of the Committee on 16th July 2013 to report and discuss their concerns. The TMO also attended the meeting and presented their own report which contradicted the residents accounts of what had occurred and downplayed the seriousness of the matter and the fire risk involved.
Robert Black, the CEO of the TMO, also alleged that the Grenfell Action Group and other local stakeholders, such as the Grenfell Tower Leaseholders Association, had made misleading statements on our blog and in round robin emails. When we later challenged him to substantiate these allegations by specifying which of the statements he believed to be misleading he declined to do so and failed to provide any evidence for this and other derogatory statements he had made to the Scrutiny Committee.
When the residents groups were eventually able to study the minutes of the meeting and the report that was submitted by the TMO we were horrified to discover that the Scrutiny Committee had chosen to accept the TMO version of events and had given little creedence to the explicit health and safety concerns highlighted earlier by the resident groups in an email to the Chair of the Scrutiny Committee on 9th July.
Incidentally the Committee Report, submitted several weeks after the incident, included the following remarks:
“It is too early to say whether the problem has been fully resolved and where responsibility lies for the cause. It is possible that the fault that has been rectified is not the primary cause.”
Grenfell Tower residents were never informed whether the primary cause of the electrical problem was ever identified.
Source: Grenfell Action Group.
Also related: GRENFELL TOWER – FROM BAD TO WORSE
“[…] They had woken to find smoke issuing from various electrical appliances in their homes, including the light fixtures, and descended in panic to the estate office to demand help and assistance. Emergency electricians who attended later in the day were finally, it seems, able to identify the source of the problem. An emergency temporary electrical by-pass supply has been provided and the necessary follow–up works will be carried out in the near future.
It is very clear at this stage that the electrical supply to Grenfell Tower has been in a very dangerous condition for several weeks. It is equally clear that the authorities had been repeatedly warned of this but had failed to react with sufficient urgency and had failed to take adequate remedial measures.
As evidence of this we present the extract below from an email sent on 13th May by Shah Ahmed, Chair of the Grenfell Tower Leaseholders Association, to Robert Black at TMO and various RBKC councillors and TMO officers:
Continuous Power Surges in Grenfell Tower
There have been two weeks of power surges in the building, most notably in the early hours of the morning and throughout the evening and night time. Electronic apparatus are seriously affected by these surges. Computers are turned on and off, lights continually flicker becoming very dim and extremely bright in the space of a few seconds.
On 11th May 2013 at 9:05pm we had numerous power surges in the space of a minute, and in that process my computer and monitor literally exploded with smoke seeping out from the back and the smell of burnt electronics filled our entire computer. My monitor also fused at the same time. When I called the TMO out of hours service the standard textbook response was given to us that I was the first one to report such a problem and I was made to feel like a fool reporting such an issue, which resulted in years of data being lost forever.
Please note if the power surges continue at Grenfell Tower, it would be very dangerous and costly because it is interfering with electric and electronic items in the household, including the telephone line, television, fridge, washing machine, computer etc”.
A NUMBER OF THINGS NEED TO HAPPEN NOW:
- Grenfell Tower residents are demanding an emergency meeting with RBKC and TMO officers to fully explain what went wrong with the electrical supply, and why the TMO failed to respond with appropriate urgency. This meeting should be arranged as a matter of urgency.
- Officers attending the meeting should be prepared to explain why electrical engineers who ordered the planned power cut in Grenfell Tower between 08:30-17:30 on Saturday 18th May failed to identify and rectify a serious and dangerous fault in the electrical supply at that time.
- A single staircase with no natural light is the only emergency exit route from Grenfell Tower. The emergency lighting system in that stairwell should be thoroughly checked to ensure that neither the system itself, nor any of the individual battery packs, has been damaged by the power surges of recent weeks. If there is damage it should be immediately repaired as a matter of urgency.
- A number of electrical appliances belonging to Grenfell Tower residents were damaged or destroyed by power surges in recent weeks, although the amount off such damage and the number of victims is not yet known. On the face of it either the TMO or its electrical contractors would appear to be liable, but so far the TMO has denied any liability. Liability for this damage must be ascertained as soon as possible and all residents whose property was damaged should be fully compensated, including those whose refrigerated food was spoilt during the planned power cut on 18th May.
RBKC councillors please take careful note of the above. We feel very strongly that there needs to be much closer scrutiny by TMO Technical Services Officers of the performance of contractors, particularly those supplying essential and emergency services, and much closer scrutiny by RBKC scrutiny committees of the TMO and its service delivery arrangements and monitoring.”
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